One of the world’s greatest photographers returns to Oxfordshire, writes SYLVIA VETTA.
Dale Johnston, the events and temporary exhibitions officer at Banbury Museum, must have been delighted when Michael Kenna accepted his offer to mount a show at Banbury. Michael is widely recognised as the foremost landscape photographer of his generation and so Banbury has landed quite a coup.
The artist knows the local landscape well because he studied at the Banbury School of Art. He now lives in Portland, Oregon, but a piece of his heart must have remained in Oxfordshire.
His landscapes are recognisable but the familiar appears unfamiliar.
Michael said: “I often think of my work as a visual haiku. It is an attempt to evoke and suggest through as few elements as possible rather than describe with tremendous detail. Most intriguing of all is the possibility to photograph what is impossible for the human eye to see – cumulative time.” Time and light provide the subtle chemistry for his poetic images.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing, for Weekend, the Bill Brandt exhibition at the V&A. Michael admired him and had the privilege of corresponding with him. He said he particularly learned from Brandt night photography and stage lighting to create drama, atmosphere and contrast.
The local landscapes are his earliest and his most conventional. He excels when he uses Brandt techniques.
He bleaches out background.
He said: “I like to create space for the viewers to exercise their imagination.”
The most recent Japanese pictures go even further than Brandt in paring down the image. I particularly admired these and loved the delicacy of his sunflowers, which can easily be taken for pen and ink drawings.
There are no people in his images but the effects of man are on the landscape. Michael was born in 1953, in Widnes, before our old industrial revolution ended in the eighties. He has won many awards and was made Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the Ministry of Culture in France.
He donated some of his most moving work to the Patrimoine Photographique in Paris. The subject was the hardest he had tackled. Those 300 original prints were of an industrial landscape of the bleakest imaginable, the Nazi death camps.
“I was also photographing the kindergarten pictures at this time. So the experience was intense. I had of necessity to look at both sides of the human condition: the innocence and naivety and the dark and calculating. I saw how we can go in either direction.”
Michael selected 56 photographs for this retrospective, inviting us to view our surroundings suffused by mysterious atmospheric effects. The flow of the exhibition starts with early work in this region and moves ‘outwards’ geographically and in style and subject matter.
The serene Japanese work is grouped together in a contemplative area of the gallery where visitors can also browse through books of images. It is here you can see the volumes of kindergarten and holocaust pictures.
I asked Dale, who, with Kate Stevens of Hackelbury Gallery, did the picture hanging, if he had any favourites. He found it difficult “to choose a favourite from what is already an exhibition of career highlights. I love his night photography, capturing dramatic images and features that the human eye doesn’t normally experience.
“On the other hand, his recent body of work in Hokkaido includes remarkably serene images that have a very calm feel to them. I think if I was pushed for a particular favourite I would have to consider not just the beauty and technical skill but the positive associations and feelings that come from looking at the picture. On that basis I would probably say Broughton Castle, Oxfordshire, 1977 shown on the cover. It is a view of reeds reflecting the stillness of the moat, with attractive lighting and Broughton Castle appearing in an ethereal way beyond. It is a romantic image of a lovely location in the rolling North Oxfordshire countryside.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Michael Kenna in the production of the exhibition. Given all that he has achieved in his career and the acclaim he has received, he remains a remarkably humble and kind-hearted man as well as a great photographer.”
Dale is not alone in this opinion. Kenna’s Banbury and London College of Printing (now the London School of Communciation) tutors were movingly proud of this collection.
As to what his plans are, Michael said: “I try not to think too much about the future. I like John Lennon’s line ‘life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’.”
Whether you plan it or not, a visit to the Michael Kenna: Retrospective will reveal the landscape of life in a new light.
Michael Kenna: Retrospective is at Banbury Museum at Castle Quay until March 4, Mon-Sat 9.30am-5pm, Sun 10.30am-4.30pm.